(Australian Associated Press)
Mission accomplished for Tim Paine and Justin Langer. Sort of.
Paine’s team will return to Australia after successfully retaining the Ashes, something their predecessors on tours of England in 2005, 2009, 2013 and 2015 failed to achieve.
But a loss in the series finale means the drought drags on; Australia haven’t recorded an Ashes series win in England since Steve Waugh’s side triumphed 4-1 in 2001.
Their next chance will come in 2023, at which point it will be a 22-year wait. Steve Smith will be 34 and quite possibly gearing up for his Ashes swansong.
There was much for Paine and Langer to like about the past six weeks, headlined by a potent pace attack and Smith’s heroics.
But plenty went wrong, most notably the lack of batting depth exposed by Smith’s class, and the captain’s abysmal use of the Decision Review System (DRS).
Forecasts of a bowler-friendly contest proved as reliable as those tipping rain to be a near-constant nuisance in the tailend of England’s summer.
Paine declared in his final press conference that it was mission accomplished, especially given the team’s struggles over the past year.
Langer, who flashed an ice-cold look in the rooms as England completed a 135-run victory, also expressed mixed emotions.
“A bit hollow really … you make a (World Cup) semi-final and then retain the Ashes, you probably say it’s been a successful summer,” Langer said.
Paine had, six days earlier, interjected and corrected a question that referenced Australia having achieved their main objective of the tour by retaining the urn.
It is hard to assess just exactly how happy Paine and Langer will be with a 2-2 scoreline, especially given their Headingley heartbreak and flat finale.
What is easier is determining the squad’s mental state.
They are, in the words of Steve Smith, “cooked”. Especially those backing up from the World Cup, having spent four intense months in England.
Paine and Langer insist it is no excuse, pointing to the fact England have endured the same workload, but being away from home for so long takes its toll.
That Australia negotiated Smith and David Warner’s return from suspension so seamlessly – and were so competitive throughout both events – was a product of meticulous planning.
Part of which was put in place by former team-performance boss Pat Howard, such as the Australia A tour and intra-squad selection showdown that preceded the Ashes.
Langer noted those initiatives, along with an unprecedentedly late naming of the squad, helped Australia maintain their grip on the urn.
“It (a selection trial involving the nation’s best 25 players) was a really good thing. It keeps players under pressure,” Langer said.
“When we reflect and review it, all those positives will come out.”
Paine declared there was unfinished business for his team.
The wicketkeeper won’t be part of the next Ashes tour but he and Langer will be keen to return in 2021 for the world Test championship final.